In the summer of 2016 I was driving from eastern Washington down to California. My father had been hospitalized following a major heart attack, and the radio was full of presidential campaign rhetoric. How could I not be dismayed by the exploitative cynicism of Make America Great Again? Yet also frustrated by the other campaign’s seeming failure to understand that slogan’s appeal—its coercive, corrosive power. And as I drove through the ranch lands east of the Cascades, then across the mountains, and finally on down through what some imagine will become the Great State of Jefferson to places that had names on the map, I began framing the pieces of “In This America,” scribbling them on paper scraps as I stopped along the way—rest stops, gas stations, a road side café. The poems of the first two sections echo out and imagine back from “In This America,” so that the end is in some sense the beginning and the beginning the end.
In the hill country of northern California when I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, it was said, A man’s home is his castle. And as a boy, a working-class boy in the west, I took that for granted. What could be more American than providing a home for the woman who tended it and brought her King his can of Lucky Lager. Single wide or tract house bungalow made no difference.
The saying, of course, assumed (implied and enforced?) roles and inequalities that as a boy, a working-class boy in the west, I failed to notice, because they were mostly unconscious, and so went without saying. And in any case the inequality that most directly shaped my reality (even as I never quite thought about this either) had to do with class and to a lesser extent with region—something I discovered when I went east to a place I thought was called Eye-thack-uh. But wasn’t.
Today, the saying might go: A man’s truck is his castle. And the more chrome the better. Was it Teddy Roosevelt who advised Drawl softly and drive a big truck? Perhaps not, but there’s a shift here across the decades from the end of the World War II as the belief (perhaps even a faith) that Here is where we will be able to be us turned into the question of How can I be noticed? How can I be? And in between is maybe Roger Miller’s 1965 classic, “King of the Road”:
Rooms to let, 50 cents
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain’t got no cigarettes
I’m a man of means by no means
King of the road
No home, no truck, no cigarettes, but a king of the everywhere nowhere in a cheap motel room with the song playing over and over on both pop and country radio as if this were a comic fantasy of escape, instead of a threat, a possible fate.
“Me and Bobby McGee” includes the line Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Most people probably know that line from Janis Joplin’s recording. But Kris Kristofferson, who also recorded it, wrote it as a country song. And the Freedom in these two is not the same, nor is the nothin’.
In Joplin’s version we turn away from mere social conventions (and restrictions and coercive inequalities). We trade the mortgage payment on the suburban ranch house and the dream of paying country club dues for the freedom of the open road and taking whatever comes as it comes. And this rejection of (what Dylan once termed) suck-cess is a kind of liberation—bittersweet in its cost but also a kind of redemptive authenticity.
In Kristofferson’s version, the me is already on the social and economic margin, already outside the possibility of suck-cess. And the Freedom that comes from walking away from that cheap motel room comes in recognizing that one never had anything to lose in the first place. In “Me and Bobby McGee” as a country song, Freedom is accepting that loss is all one has ever had and all one is allowed to have. That, too, is a kind of bittersweet authenticity.
The world imagined (and in part remembered) in these poems is probably closer to Kristofferson’s “Bobby McGee” than to Joplin’s—much as I loved her vision of the song and love it still. And just as I love Kristofferson’s, even as I know they cannot both be true yet know they are.
A Note on the Cover
The cover’s background image is a photograph of the headworks of one of the abandoned silver mines in Tonopah, Nevada, taken by Susan Spurlock, my wife, on our visit to Tonopah early summer 2018. It captures something of the layering of times and orders of being we are often too busy to notice:
The sun just past its height
and so bright the hillsides
stepping away and up
from the abandoned mines
seem black & white as if
we are looking
at an old photo
yet walking in it
as we wander the mine site—
and jostled by
the shadows not there.
The West, it seems, wasn’t just cowboys riding the range yodeling “Yip ee ti yo yo, get along little dogie.”
The young woman in the photo sampled in the foreground ovals is Pearl Hillman nee Hunt (1917-2015)—or as I always knew her, Auntie Sue. The cowgirl outfit is perhaps inspired by Patsy Montana, who recorded the country hit “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” and I’m guessing it’s what she wore when she played and sang with her grandfather, the fiddler Byrd Hunt, in his ensemble. The pine trees that used to be next to the small cottage where she and her husband, Oliver Hillman, later lived and wintered when it was too cold in the high mountains for them to log, have more recently transformed into the Twin Pines Casino (Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California), and where the cottage stood is now the back corner of the casino’s overflow parking lot.
My thanks to John Hunt for yet another resonant cover conception and design. Some covers are a mirror reflecting the designer; John’s designs are windows into the collections—visual poems.